What is Just?

Are Criticisms of the George Floyd Protests Appropriate?

George Floyd is a 46 year old black man who recently died in an encounter with the police. 

In this encounter, a police officer knelt on his neck while Floyd, who was not resisting arrest (surveillance footage shows this), was lying face down on the ground. He repeatedly told the officers around him that he could not breathe and that he was in pain. The police didn’t listen.

Floyd, who had two daughters and was known among his friends as a gentle giant, died as a result of this incident. (You can read about Floyd here and here.) Two of the police officers involved in Floyd’s death had been previously investigated for improper use of force.

Floyd’s death is tragic. Tragically, it is also not anomalous.

Violence Against Black Bodies

A recent sociological study done by researchers at Rutger’s University found that getting shot by the police is a leading cause of death for young black men in the U.S. and that 1 in 1,000 black men and boys can expect to die at the hands of police–a rate that is 2.5 times higher than the rate of death by police-related white deaths. This suggests that black deaths the result from police brutality are not just random anomalous events but a part of a widespread, systemic problem.

Statistics like this are brought into stark relief by incidences like recent ones involving Ahmaud Arbery , a 25-year-old black man who was chased down the street and shot by two Georgia residents (all of this was capture on video) while he was out for a morning run.

Although we would like to assume it isn’t so, it is not safe in the U.S. to drive, walk, or shop while being black. It is not even safe to bird watch while being black. This truth was recently illustrated by an incident involving Christian Cooper a black man who was bird watching in Central Park in New York.

Cooper asked a white woman whose dog was running free in the park to leash her dog, per the Central Park rules. The woman took out her phone and told Cooper she was going to call the police and tell them a black man was threatening her life. Cooper caught the whole thing on videotape.

Data, anecdotes, and video footage such as the ones mentioned above bring into stark relief the fact that racism is alive and well in the U.S. It is present in our police force and in cities and neighborhoods across our nation. And it is deadly.

Every year, unarmed, un-resisting black men and women (many of them who have committed no crime) are killed by the police–their only offense: existing while being black. In many of these cases, the police involved have show previous problematic conduct, and in many cases, they are never brought to justice. (You can read more about this here, here, here, and here.

Demonstration for the civil rights in Montgomery, police repression, 1965, United States, New York, Schomburg Center. (Photo by Photo12/UIG/Getty Images)

Why People Tend to Ignore Racism

The racism that currently exists in our country is a legacy of the racism that existed in the slave era when many people believed that black people were inferior to white people; that white people deserved to be in charge of black bodies and black persons; that black people were dangerous, unintelligent, immoral, and savage. (You can read more about these stereotypes here.)

In many cases, people never stopped holding these racists attitudes, although most people would who hold these attitudes would never consider themselves racist. No one likes to think of themselves or the people they love as holding racist attitudes. Instead, people believe their views just reflect common sense views about the characteristics of different ethnic and racial groups, while ignoring the way in which prejudice or unjust social arrangements construct such perceived characteristics[1]; or they believe that they are just concerned about upholding law and order, while failing to realize that racism can infect and corrupt the laws of a society as well as its citizens.

People will do almost any else, rather than consider the fact that they or the people they love may hold racist attitudes or that the society that they live in may replicate racist attitudes in its institutions such as churches, schools, police force, and judicial system.[2]

Civil Rights activists are blocked by National Guardsmen brandishing bayonets while trying to stage a protest on Beale Street in Memphis, Tennessee. The marching demonstrators, who are wearing signs which say “I Am A Man,” are also flanked by tanks.

The Response to Racism

But if racism still exists-and it does—and if it is killing people every year, every day—and it is—and if people are not ­­­­willing to listen to the cries of black people about this problem—and they’re not—then what are black people to do about it?

Well, I can tell you some of the things they have done.

In the last couple of years Colin Kaepernick and other NFL players knelt peacefully during the singing of the National Anthem at the beginning of football games to protest black deaths and police brutality.

SANTA CLARA, CA – SEPTEMBER 12: Colin Kaepernick #7 and Eric Reid #35 of the San Francisco 49ers kneel in protest during the national anthem prior to playing the Los Angeles Rams in their NFL game at Levi’s Stadium on September 12, 2016 in Santa Clara, California. (Photo by Thearon W. Henderson/Getty Images)

And what happened? The President bashed the NFL players for doing this and called Kaepernick unpatriotic and players like them “Sons of bitches”, and said the NFL should kick players like them out.

Black people have also held Black Lives Matter rallies and marches calling attention to the disproportionate violence against back people and reminding people that black people were people, too, and that the violence done against them must be stopped.

And what happened?  The President and other people responded to them “All Lives Matter” while failing to do anything to address the disproportionate violence against black people. (You can read more here about why responding “All Lives Matter” to the phrase “Black Lives Matter” is neither wise nor helpful.)

What do people do when they are being harassed, oppressed, and persecuted, and daily their lives are threatened, and peaceful protest fails to bring an end to their suffering?

Well, I can tell you what some people in our country have done in the past. As you know from history, the early colonists in America faced increasing harassment, oppression, and persecution from Britain. They tried peaceful protest, but that failed to change the minds and heart of British people. So, the colonists destroyed British property as an act of rebellion in what is now called the Boston Tea Party, which was one of the steps that led to the Revolutionary War and American independence from Britain.

Illustration of a The Boston Tea Party was a political protest by the Sons of Liberty in Boston, Massachusetts, on December 16, 1773

And we might debate the ethics of destroying someone’s else’s property as an act of protest, but if we do so an essential part of such a debate is this question: “What recourse do oppressed and persecuted people, especially People of Color, have when their lives are continually threatened and even taken from them and no one listens to their peaceful protests and cries for help?”

In regards to the protest of People of Color, if our answer to that question is “People should protest peacefully”, we are being obtuse about the ways in which People of Color have protested peacefully for hundreds of years, and people, the President and ourselves, have ignored them. If our response it “People should just shut up and deal with it”, we fail, in every way, to practice ethics ourselves and are complicit in the oppression and persecution of the people in question.

This week, people all over the U.S. have protested Floyd’s death. Some of those protests involved property destruction, including the vandalizing of a Target store. In response to this, President Trump tweeted, “Looting will lead to shooting”, implying that protesters involved in such vandalism would be shot.

Of course, one could criticize the way in which this Tweet glorifies and condones violence as a response to calls for social justice. One could also note that this Tweet condones a type of vigilante justice and circumvents due process handling of potential criminal cases. Such criticisms would be justified.

Instead of criticizing the President’s Tweet for other reasons, I would like to point out that by ignoring, mocking, and threatening generally peaceful protests like those of Kaepernick and Black Lives Matters, the President has failed to act in an ethical matter in regards to racial injustice, and in this latest tweet, he becomes complicit in a system that has decided that black lives are not as important as white lives; that white people are in charge of black bodies; and that black people should just shut up and deal with their lot in life.

This is not an acceptable solution to the problem of violence against black people, and it no wonder that they have rejected it. We should reject it, too.

Demonstrators and Chicago Freedom Movement members march in lines, some with posters, under the Chicago El (elevated railroad) during a protest calling for the firing of School Superindentant Benjamin Willis by Mayor Daley over the former’s delays in intergrating area schools, Chicago, Illinois, mid 1960s. (Photo by Robert Abbott Sengstacke/Getty Images)


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If you are white and want to work for racial justice, you can read more about this here and here.

You might also like this post:

About Oppression, Racism, White Privilege, and Justice: Why Oppression Harms Us All


[1] In his book The Souls of Black Folks, W.E.B. Dubois describes how many Southerners were appalled by the ignorance of freed slaves. What they failed to consider, it appears, is that most slaves had been prohibited from learning to read and write in their slave conditions. Furthermore, when they were freed, the U.S. government quickly discontinued the Freedman’s Bureau, the main job of which was to provide education and job training for slaves. This left freed slaves in a desperate situation, as they were not able to educate themselves, given that education was prohibited in their former slave lives, and very few, if any, southerners were willing to teach former slaves.

We often see the legacy of this situation today in school inequality in the U.S. Public schools in the U.S. are funded by property tax. This is great if you live in a neighborhood that has great property value. If you live in very poor neighborhoods, however, (for instance, impoverished black neighborhoods), your school receives impoverished educational funding. This means that students in these neighborhoods often attend schools with very poor teachers, educational programs, and school facilities. Many black students who try to leave such schools and attend schools in wealthier (re: whiter) neighborhoods are run off by white families who don’t want “those kinds of students” in their school. To read more about this, see Jonathan Kozol’s book Savage Inequalities.

[2] I know this because the subject of racism was a very painful one for me to consider. I was raised to believe that God loved every racial group and person equally, and I truly believed that. So, it was painful for me to consider ways I may have unintentionally picked up unconscious racist beliefs through culture, and it was painful for me to consider ways in which institutions I loved and trusted might also be tainted by racism. It is a hard thing for us to look at our own faults and shortcomings. It takes courage. But the truth does, indeed, set you free.

8 thoughts on “Are Criticisms of the George Floyd Protests Appropriate?”

  1. Excellent article (as usual)!! Clearly, logically and succinctly stated. Gave me much to consider regarding my own white-entitled attitudes, however much I try to ignore that I have them.

    1. Patricia, thank you so much. I really appreciate these comments. They mirror my own journey, as I have to reflect on my white-entitled attitudes and privilege, too.

  2. As always Shelly you put forward the reasoned ethical argument. Very very well written. As you say, if those who are not disempowered are not making any efforts to understand, what is left to you? Do you just carry on being oppressed and scared or do you take action?

    1. Thank you so much for this comment, Ali. Because I am a Quaker, I have really strong pacifist leanings, but I also believe in self-defense. And your question is spot-on: “If those who are not disempowered are not making any efforts to understand, what is left to you? Do you just carry on being oppressed and scared or do you take action?”

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